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Thinking About The Felix Situation - Part 2 (Reason)

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In hindsight, I regret posting these in the order I did. Conclusions leave stronger impressions than beginnings, and by doing it this way I'm more likely to convey the notion that I favor this argument over yesterday's, which just isn't true. Reason is important, but so is emotion - especially in this case - and had I posted the first part second and the second part first, I might have avoided coming off cold and unfeeling. But this is the order I've gone with, and the best I can do is reassure you that all points raised these last two days are valid, none more valid than any other. There is both a rational way to approach this situation and an emotional one, and before I proceed with the former, I just want to say that I love Felix Hernandez, and I love him very much.

Now then. I hope this doesn't hurt.

The first thing we have to do, here, is establish that Felix is really good. I guess we don't need to do it since it's already pretty well established, but just in case you forgot, Felix is a 23 year old starter coming off a 34-start season in which he posted a 2.49 ERA, a 3.09 FIP, and a 3.31 tRA. He's a four-pitch pitcher that throws strikes, misses bats, and keeps the ball on the ground, and though he doesn't have Roy Halladay's command, Justin Verlander's unhittability, or Joel Pineiro's hatred of worms, it's Felix's blend of all three abilities that makes him so special. He's on the short list of the best pitchers in baseball, a pitcher whose workhorseitude has laid to rest any concerns one might've had about his durability or mechanics. In short, if you were given the opportunity to build a franchise around any one starting pitcher, Felix is about as good as you could possibly do.

And the thing about amazing, elite-level starting pitchers is that they get paid. A lot. Because they deserve it. According to Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement calculation, over the past four and a half years Felix has been worth 21.2 wins, or about six more wins than perennial dark horse MVP candidate Justin Morneau. His 6.9 WAR this past season put him in the company of names like Halladay, Ryan Zimmerman, and Evan Longoria. By any measure, Felix Hernandez is a superstar, and the Mariners find themselves in position to lock up that superstar for a long long time.

Clearly, there's no argument that an attempt shouldn't be made. The Mariners have said that they and Felix's agent will sit down sometime soon to talk extension, and when they do, Zduriencik will bring to the table an offer that he and his front office have determined is fair. Felix is the sort of player you make an effort to retain. The big question, then - the biggest question of all - is just what the offer should look like.

Felix is an incredible pitcher. That much is obvious. He's an incredible young pitcher who's worth a big contract that keeps him around for several years. And it's almost unfortunate that the factor setting a ceiling to that contract is maybe the only thing about Felix's career that's out of his control.

The Rays signed Evan Longoria for nine years, and everyone was thrilled. The Washington Capitals signed Alexander Ovechkin for 13 years, and everyone was thrilled. But doing the same sort of thing with Felix wouldn't be a wise move - not because of anything Felix has done, but simply because of what Felix is. Felix is a pitcher, and pitchers, sadly, are both unpredictable and unreliable. Let's go back to 2005 and look at a list of the top young pitchers in the league. Up there are names like John Lackey, Josh Beckett, and Dan Haren. Great pitchers then, and great pitchers still. But also on the list are names like Dontrelle Willis, Mark Prior, and John Patterson. Brandon Webb got hurt. Johan Santana got hurt. Scott Kazmir got hurt. Noah Lowry got hurt. Jeremy Bonderman got hurt. Chris Young got bad. And so on. It sucks, but it's reality. The pitchers who posted the top ten FIPs in the league in 2007 made 161 total starts in 2009. That means that, on average, the group missed half the season. That's bad. That's bad.

There are a million ways of looking at this, but they'll all lead you to the same conclusion. What if we go into history and look at the guys who made the most starts before turning 24? Since integration, 33 guys have made at least 100 Major League starts at 23 or younger. Names like Bert Blyleven, Catfish Hunter, and CC Sabathia are encouraging. Names like Dwight Gooden, Steve Avery, and Alex Fernandez are not. Pitchers can't be depended on to either remain healthy or remain effective, and as much as we'd like to believe that Felix is an exception - as much as we'd like to think "look, he's durable, he hasn't broken down, I think he's proven himself" - Cubs fans felt the same way about Mark Prior, and that story is tragic. There is just no way for anyone to know for certain what the future holds for Felix, and so when you start looking at the odds, you begin to understand the predicament.

Generally speaking, if a starting pitcher is good in year X, he's probably going to be good and healthy again in year X+1. That's not the issue. The issue comes up when you're thinking about year X+3 or X+5 o X+7. With Longoria, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that, six years down the line, he's going to be a really good player. With Felix or any starting pitcher, it's not the same. So when you're drawing up a contract offer for a starting pitcher, you have to weigh how good he is and how good he could be against the likelihood that he declines or blows out his arm. Do that and you'll find that you're pretty unwilling to just guarantee extra years.

The Mariners will look at Felix, they'll look at the history, they'll look at the odds, and they'll come up with a contract. It will be at least four years long. I don't know if they'd be willing to do five, and if they're willing to do five, I don't know if they'd be willing to do six. Maybe they would. If the Mariners offer Felix six years, he's probably going to take it. Five, I dunno. Five could go either way. And four would be a long shot.

The Mariners should know this already. If I know it, then they know it. They know that, if they meet with Alan Nero and offer $100m/6yr, then they've almost certainly got Felix locked up at a $100m/6yr contract. The question is, would they do it? Would they make that kind of offer, or would they limit themselves to five or even four years? It's hard - even for the people who want the M's to pay Felix whatever he wants, there's a limit. Not even the craziest Felix fan in the world would want the M's to promise him $75m a season. Everybody has a limit, and if the Mariners determine that their limit is four or five years, then they've concluded that such a limit is reasonable. Then it becomes a matter of seeing whether the Mariners' highest limit and Felix's lowest overlap.

If the Mariners get Felix locked up, that's great. Any contract this front office offers Felix is going to be a reasonable one, so if they get Felix locked up, that means they got him locked up to a reasonable contract. Where this really becomes an issue, though, is what if they don't? What if the Mariners don't feel comfortable going up to six years? What if Felix won't settle for four or five, or what if he won't even settle for six? What do we do if Jack Zduriencik and Alan Nero sit down, talk contract, and can't come to any agreement? It's easy to say that Z should just pay the difference, but the M's are going to go into these talks with a very good idea of how high they're willing to go, and there's no guarantee that their ceiling will fall within Felix's range of acceptability.

That's when we come to the scenario that's already keeping some of us up at night. A scenario in which Felix Hernandez is still a Seattle Mariner, but a Seattle Mariner without a long-term commitment.

This is when reason and emotion really start to do battle. Fail to re-sign Felix this offseason and you basically give yourself a two-year window of opportunity to do something while he's around. Hold onto him and, if he stays healthy, come next offseason his demands will only be bigger as he looks ahead to free agency. Fail to re-sign Felix now and the likelihood then is that, by 2012, he won't be a Mariner anymore. Not a guarantee, but the most probable outcome.

So if the Mariners can't sign Felix to an extension, they're faced with two choices: Keep him, or trade him.

Personally, I don't see keeping him as that attractive of an option. Felix aside, the M's have a difficult offseason ahead of them. If they intend to contend in 2010, they're going to need to pull some wins out of thin air, and they're going to be in direct competition with three successful organizations. If you keep Felix, you're saying that you want to try to win, but winning - meaningful winning - is going to be hard to achieve. It's always a possibility, but this team isn't going to be the division favorite next year, and while we can't see the future, odds are against them being the favorite the year after that. Keep Felix for two years and you have to try to win without sacrificing so much of your future that you're screwed after he's gone, and that doesn't strike me as the smartest course of action.

Neither does hanging onto him with the intent of trading him at the deadline or next offseason. Felix's value is at or near its highest. For one thing, there's no guarantee that he remains healthy or effective, and for another, even if he does, there will be fewer teams looking to trade for him in July than there will be this December, and the closer he gets to free agency, the less other teams will be willing to give up. Having two guaranteed years of Felix under team control is a lot more valuable than 1.5 or 1 of the same.

If the Mariners and Felix can't agree on an extension, the smartest move as best as I can see it, then, becomes to trade him somewhere else. To put him on the market, to let people know he's on the market, and to sit back and let the offers roll in. Because if the Mariners and Felix can't agree on an extension, then the Mariners are in position to deal their ace for an unthinkable haul.

Emotionally, it'd be rough. I talked about that at some length last night. But a GM can't let himself get led astray by emotion, because emotion is irrational, and successful ballclubs aren't built on irrationality. Felix is an icon. Randy was an icon. Griffey was an icon. Those two were dealt and the team moved ahead, and should we get to the nightmare scenario with Felix, the same thing should happen. The team should do what's in the best interests of the team, and what would be in the best interests of the team would be trading its most valuable asset for a collection of talent that could help the Mariners win their first title.

People will argue that to trade Felix is to cripple the team, but what they mean is that to trade Felix is to damage their fanhood, because while Felix is amazing and awesome and everything in between, he's one guy, one guy coming off a season in which he was worth seven wins more than Chris Jakubauskas. Seven wins is a lot, and Felix is among the most irreplaceable players in the league, but the point is that, in almost every case, it's impossible to cripple a team by trading one player. To cripple a team is to trade Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore for a starter. That's the sort of move that can set you back ten years. To trade one guy, though, just isn't as significant, and in Felix's case, comes with the potential of maybe even bringing back a Lee/Phillips/Sizemore sort of package. There's no realistic way that trading Felix could make the Mariners better immediately, but if they land a good deal and the players develop, a year or three down the road could find them in an excellent situation. What if the Mariners traded Felix for a long-term 4 WAR shortstop and a 4-WAR starter? They'd be worse in 2010, but by 2011 and 2012, they'd be reaping the rewards.

We're Mariners fans. The Mariners are what brought us together. As Mariners fans, we've gone through times during which it felt like Felix was the only thing keeping us sane, but the reason we got so low in the first place is because the front office didn't make decisions that were in the organization's best interests. We still would've loved Felix had the team been successful, but the love wouldn't be the same. And so, now that we're being run by a competent GM and an extraordinary set of assistants, we have to ask ourselves: do we care more about Felix than we care about the team? A year ago, I might've said yes. I can't. I can't because for the first time in forever I know that the Mariners are going in the right direction, and that's exciting. I've had fun rooting for a pitcher, but I'm ready to root for a team, and I'm ready to root for a team in October.

The Mariners' front office should abide by one rule and one rule only: do what you think is best for the team. If they get Felix re-signed, that's wonderful. For everyone. But if they can't, because they determine that Felix's demands go beyond what's reasonable to offer, what's best for the team becomes trading Felix for a haul. And while that's not something anyone really wants to think about, ultimately, the organization knows that almost all of its fans will remain loyal, because we've been through similar situations before and come out shining on the other side.

Felix Hernandez is an extraordinary pitcher. We love Felix Hernandez for a number of reasons, but first and foremost, we love Felix Hernandez because we love the Seattle Mariners.